During slow news cycles, German magazines and newspapers periodically publish stories on why the potato is a healthy food, or why it tastes so good, lovingly specifying its nutrients: calories, vitamins and minerals, all carefully located within the structure of the tuber and its skin. The story behind Germany’s love of the potato is considerably more complex and interesting than such publications usually indicate, however.
When the American-born Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford of baking soda fame, finally established cultivation of the potato as a food crop in Bavaria in the 1780s and 90s, later than had been done in many other German regions, inhabitants of the poor house initially strongly objected to being fed the starchy root. History has never been entirely fair to Thompson, often remembering him more for being Johnny Appleseed’s cousin, or being on the wrong side of the American Revolution, or for so angering his wife that he lost his prized roses, or for designing the Englischer Garten in Munich, rather than for his important work on ballistics, illumination, and thermodynamics, and I have no intention of being so now.
He perhaps deserves a degree of sympathy regarding the flowers: he had dreaded the arrival of a klatch of his wife’s friends, fearing, from experience, that their noise and tumult would disrupt his concentration while he was working on his experiments. After chaining the gates shut to block the arrival of carriages, Thompson retreated to his laboratory only to look up from his work to see his wife and her maids pouring boiling water over his cherished roses. The lady was Lavoisier’s widow, and not to be trifled with. Thompson and Madame Lavoisier separated a year after marrying. Their courtship had lasted four years.
Today each German eats on average 70 kilograms [150 pounds] of potatoes a year. But Germany did not take to the potato eagerly like Ireland, whose uniquely suitable friable soils and small-holds paved the way to the monoculture that led to the disasters of the Famine of the 1840s and 50s.
Germany’s adoption of the potato was even less like the enthusiastic cultivation of the more nourishing sweet potato by the Chinese, who used it to turn previously marginal sandy soils into highly productive fields about the same time they were using maize to transform barely arable hill lands into rich sources of grain. The Chinese people used American crops brilliantly to fuel a remarkable demographic surge that started long before there was a United States of America, succeeding despite egregious misgovernment by the Ming and the Qing Dynasties, insurrections, civil wars, easily preventable diseases, and invasions.
The potato was introduced to Germany as a flowering botanical novelty in 1589, but won widespread acceptance as a foodstuff for farmers and the poor in the 17th century.
To understand Germany’s special regard for the potato it helps, as with so many German historical questions, to look again at the Thirty Years War. Some Germans identify this period of 1618 to 1648 as the greatest disaster in Germany’s history, surpassing even bombing and defeat in World War II and subsequent occupation by the Russians, Americans, British and French. At least 8 million people died in the Thirty Years’ War, the quotidian horrors of which are described vividly by Grimmelshausen in Simplicius Simplicissimus, and in a suitably pedestrian modern manner by Brecht in Mother Courage.
To even briefly summarize the events of the Thirty Years War would take a long time.
Things got weird: towards the end of it the very Catholic King of France came in to help the Protestant side. There is a strong case to be made that a man named Wallenstein invented the modern military-industrial complex during the conflict, and got assassinated for his efforts. Strategies and allegiances were incredibly complex and mutable. But one tactic remained remarkably constant: winter on enemy territory if you could, eating up his food stores rather than your own.
Fields of wheat, rye, and barley were hard to protect. Granaries were easy to pillage. But nourishing amounts of potatoes could be grown in small plots, and the tuber matures, with sugars converting to starches, after the part of the plant above ground dies. The potato is just the sort of clandestine food source a peasant farmer needs when soldiers are likely to requisition his crops. With a bit of dairy added to the diet, potatoes provide enough nutrition for the oppressed and poor to survive and reproduce, as Irish history attests.
In mid-17th century Germany, it was often necessary to be able to hide your food before you could eat it. The potato was a peasant farmer innovation in German nutrition, adopted by higher classes only as a result of the famines of 1719 and 1743.
Frederick the Great, who died in 1786, was such an enthusiastic promoter of potatoes that people leave tubers on his grave to this day. Some poorly informed authors credit him with introducing the potato as food to Germany, ignoring nearly 200 years of peasant achievement. Such efforts are as misleading as the statue to Sir Francis Drake in Offenburg, which lauds his role in disseminating the potato without ever mentioning the agricultural genius of the Andean cultivators and that of their neighbors on the Chilean plains who developed this staple of world nutrition.
• For the introduction of American food crops to Europe and Asia, there is still no better place to start than Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange.
• Carolus Clusius is as well known for his work on tulips as his introduction of the potato and its flower to the Low Countries and Germany: the Leiden University Library has drawn up useful bibliographies and summaries.
• Sanborn Brown’s biography Benjamin Thompson – Count Rumford has been a classic since it was published in 1979.
• Perhaps the best introduction to the Thirty Years War in English is Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War.